I'm a regular watcher of Rugby League. It's a good way to switch the brain off on Friday evenings. Yet footballers often get bad press. Whether it's off field incidents involving drugs, alcohol and violence towards women, or onfield violence towards each other, you would be forgiven for thinking sometimes that footballers are a bunch of amoral thugs. This however, is a long way from the truth, at least for most.
Our story begins in August 2011 and the notorious Round 25 clash between Melbourne and Manly. This match is infamous for a vicious all-in brawl that erupted in the second half. A bit too much aggression in a tackle led to a few punches and a lot of pushing and shoving near the tryline. The referees decided to cool things down by sending two of the main offenders, Manly's Glenn Stewart and Melbourne's Adam Blair, to the sin bin.
At such times the refs have a clear procedure. They send the first player off (in this case Stewart), then wait until he's half way back to the grandstand before sending off the second. This way the players are kept apart. It usually works fine, but this time Stewart dawdled, Blair jogged and as they came together words, then punches were exchanged. Players from both sides rushed over to get involved, the incident went on for a few minutes before both players were banished for the remainder of the match. Subsequent inquiries led to long suspensions for both, a shorter one for Stewart's brother and Manly team-mate Brett, and fines for both clubs.
You might think this shows a level of hatred between the two teams, but another incident from the same match tells you differently. It was drowned out by the brawl and a I can't even find it on Youtube. Manly winger David Williams was diving for the tryline and Melbourne fullback Billy Slater slid in to get under him and prevent him grounding the ball. The pair collided awkwardly and wound up with Williams' head resting in Slater's lap.
Slater sat very still, cradling Williams like a baby, as he and another team mate waved players away and signalled frantically for a trainer. It turned out that Williams' neck had been injured in the collision and Slater, not wanting to risk further damage, held him still until the paramedics could immobilise his neck and get him onto a stretcher.
These incidents, like the fights, are actually quite common in Rugby League. There was similar one in Round 4 but be warned, it shows a nasty injury in graphic detail. Brisbane winger Jharal Yow Yeh and South Sydney winger Dylan Farrell leapt simultaneously for a high kick. As they came down, Yow Yeh's leg was trapped beneath his body and his ankle snapped. Players from both teams reacted swiftly. Souths fullback Greg Inglis signalled to the sideline for help then stayed to check on progress, while Brisbane centre Justin Hodges and captain Sam Thaiday comforted Yow Yeh who was in obvious pain.
I don't think its a coincidence that the players closest to Yow Yeh immediately after the injury - Inglis, Hodges and Thaiday - are all Indigenous men. Thanks to the leadership of popular Gold Coast fullback Preston Campbell, in recent years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players across the League have developed a strong bond based on their common heritage. Yet non-Indigenous players from both teams also appear in shot, saying a comforting word, touching Yow Yeh's head or squeezing his hand.
So why am I telling you this? Well, I think these incidents point to the existence of a clear moral code amongst footballers. It's not a Christian one, or one worked out in ethics classes. It doesn't necessarily match the codes promoted by sponsors or club officials. It's a cultural code, developed by generations of players, enforced by peer pressure, sometimes breached but more often honoured. Here are its key elements.
1. Violence must be in proportion
Rugby League is a rough game, and players deliberately set out to hurt each other. This is not only tolerated, it is expected. Whether it be a shoulder charge, a back-slam or a face massage post-tackle, it's all part of the game. Retaliation in the form of fisticuffs - as in the original fight in the Manly-Melbourne game - is also quite acceptable.
However, violence should hurt, not maim. Serious injuries like Williams' or Yow Yeh's are almost always the result of accidents. It is quite acceptable to belt the wind out of someone with a shoulder charge, or give them a black eye in a punch-up, but it would definitely not be acceptable for Billy Slater to do anything which would put Williams in a wheelchair. This is also the major part of Stewart's and Blair's sin - they just carried it on for too long.
2. You can break the rules but you must wear the punishment
Footballers recognise that the rules of the game are to be respected, but only when there is no other choice. A little hand in the play-the-ball, an "accidental" bump on a chasing player, a slightly late hit on the halfback after he's kicked the ball, are all fair game. It's even OK to complain and protest your innocence if you get caught. However, extended tantrums, walk-offs, boycotts or other prima donna behaviour are not to be tolerated. You have to be prepared to cop it sweet. Here Stewart and Blair transgressed again - they had been punished and they should have been doing their time.
3. You must support your team-mates
This rule applies both on the field and off it. You rarely see two players fighting without others rushing in. They are not necessarily there to join in, although sometimes they are. More often they are there to pull the players apart in order to make sure their team-mate doesn't get hurt. But as often as not the first push, punch or verbal abuse comes not from the player who has been hit in the high tackle or roughed up on the ground, but from his team-mate who takes exception on his behalf.
This is why the entire Melbourne and Manly teams were not suspended - rushing halfway across the field to defend a team-mate is only right and proper. Even Brett Stewart, who arrived on the scene with a huge right forearm to the back of Blair's head, was only suspended for one week and got a lot of sympathy for his plea that "you'd do the same if it was your brother". Well, maybe not. Glenn is a big man, and doesn't really need protecting. See point 5.
This rule, incidentally, is behind a lot of the off-field violence footballers get involved in. Firstly, of course, if they are out drinking they often cop abuse from drunk rival supporters, and have to stick up for each other. But also, there is the whole thing of being out drinking in the first place - because of course you have to stick by your mates. A lot of the most unsavoury incidents of recent years have their origin in this kind of pack mentality. Perhaps it's time for a change in this one.
4. You must defend the defenceless
If the change comes, perhaps it will be from this base. Once it was clear Williams and Yow Yeh were in serious trouble, all thought of combat was forgotten. Everyone's duty was now to help them. This is nothing more or less than common compassion, but its practice is reinforced within almost every team, and they all have their coterie of kids with disabilities, cancer sufferers and such like who the team members have taken on as special friends. Current challenge - extend this category to cover women, and embed it so deeply that it still applies when drunk.
5. Don't get too full of yourself
This is kind of an essential team thing, really. Whereas boxers, runners and other individual sports stars are allowed to proclaim their own greatness and boast about what they will do, footballers are required to be publicly humble, talk up their opponents and ascribe their successes to luck and the hard work of their team-mates.
Along with this goes the notion that ultimately you shouldn't take yourself or what you are doing too seriously. Speaking of which, one final video which shows a different kind of footballing brotherly love. St George Illawarra and Canterbury are playing one another and identical twins Brett and Josh Morris are on opposing teams. Josh gets involved in a bit of a fight along with a few other players, and Brett comes in to pull him away from it. For a moment it seems that two are laying into each other - then they pull apart laughing. Perhaps the Stewart boys should hang out with these two for a while...